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25 July 2012

Tony Blair talks faith in public life

Tony Blair talks faith in public life

Tony Blair has confessed to asking his staff to join with Salvation Army members to kneel and pray – as well as accepting that it wouldn't have been wrong if he'd prayed with President Bush.

His comments came at the final Westminster Faith Debate in Westminster Central Hall, organised by the Lancaster University's Religion and Society Programme and Theos Think Tank.

The former prime minister also spoke about his faith and how it interacted with his role as the head of the British government. However, he stood by his decision to back super-casinos and called for a secular mode of debate and decision making.

Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams joined Mr Blair for the debate.

Mr Moore acted as moderator, but also weighed in with a strong challenge to Mr Blair on the consistency of his faith and his policy making. He said: "Tony Blair, you say nice things about religion, but I'm not really sure given the things that you have introduced? Why don't you just put religion in a little box and get on with life?"

Mr Blair called for greater understanding between people from different faiths as a vital starting point for reconciling the significant differences that exist between us.

"When there is more understanding and more knowledge then there is less likely to be conflict," he said. "It is important for people growing up today to be religiously literate."

During the questions following the opening debate, Dave Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, quizzed Mr Blair on his desire for a secular space and asked whether secular neutrality was not just a myth.

In response, the former prime minister somewhat avoided the question, but commented on the contribution that people of faith have to make to public life. He called on Christians to speak up and speak out and not be embarrassed for speaking from a position of faith, saying that democracy means politicians take decisions and listen to evidence as well as moral arguments.

Rowan Williams said the default setting for debate is "that there is a rational setting for discussing things and religion is an extra," adding, "one of my biggest worries is that we are moving into a climate when we all really know what is rational but a few religious people complicate things."

He went on to say that when speaking in public debate there was a need to use arguments that those who do not share your belief can recognise. This was true, he said, even when "I may come at an issue with a strong set of religious convictions that dictate my view".

Gareth Wallace, from the Salvation Army, asked Mr Blair about his support for super-casinos on the day that a parliamentary committee called for a widespread expansion of the availability of gaming machines on the high street.

Mr Blair said that because there were already so many opportunities to gamble online he saw no reason to prevent people from gambling in physical casinos – a stance branded by Rowan Williams as "utterly, utterly bizarre".

The debate followed a series of events this year which included high profile figures such as Richard Dawkins and Michael Nazir-Ali on the role of religion in public life.

Watch the full event or download an audio recording of the debate.